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What's up with manuka honey?

What's up with manuka honey?

Honey, as we all know, is a sweet and delicious bee-made product. What you may not know is that it has a long history of being used as a medicinal ingredient from as far back as ancient Egypt! It is one of the oldest recorded antimicrobial agents. While it doesn’t harbor targeted or highly effective antibiotic effects, it has seen very little if any bacterial resistance and boasts a broad spectrum of coverage. In recent years, its usage in wound healing has become increasingly popular and even more recently, has been incorporated in several lines of cosmeceutical products, including moisturizers, masks, serums, and many more. Today, we hope to give you a basic understanding of what manuka honey is, how it is used in medicine, and whether these benefits translate into superior cosmetic products.

Basic properties

Honey is a supersaturated solution of sugars (fructose and glucose), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, proteins, and many others. It contains antimicrobial agents such as enzymes that produce hydrogen peroxide. Certain types of honey also carry unique antimicrobial chemicals as well, such as methylglyoxal in manuka honey. Manuka honey was first discovered in New Zealand, where bees created honey from the nectar of manuka trees, also known as tea trees. Its unique composition and antimicrobial properties has garnered increasing interest from medical researchers and cosmetics companies.

Manuka honey in wound healing

Manuka honey’s effectiveness and mechanism for promoting wound healing have not been completely worked out, but based on the evidence that we do have, it seems to participate in wound healing from several angles.

Antibiotic effects

While all wounds, just like all skin, has bacteria growing on it as part of its natural flora, wounds that are festering with bacterial overgrowth can be slower to heal. Manuka honey’s antibiotic properties may be helpful here. However, this can’t be the only mechanism because otherwise any antibiotic that target those bacteria should show equal effectiveness. This brings us to Manuka honey’s theoretical effect on biofilms.

Biofilm interaction

Biofilms are habitats created by bacteria that have reached a critical mass to enhance their survival. You can think of it like a house for bacteria to live safely in or a raincoat to shield them from external irritants. Examples of biofilms that you see in your everyday life include the plaque on your teeth and the pink slime that collects in your bathtub. While they can be fairly innocuous and easily removed in those cases, when biofilms form in your body or in wounds, it can become difficult to remove the bacteria. Manuka honey has been proposed to degrade existing biofilms and prevent construction of biofilms. This can be very important in the case of wounds with bacterial overgrowth.

Collagen and blood vessel formation

Finally, there is also some suggestion that manuka honey can stimulate collagen production and new blood vessel formation, both of which are important processes in wound healing.

Manuka honey in cosmetics

So how did honey go from medicine to cosmetics? It’s probably because all the stars aligned. The combination of increasing bacterial resistance to conventional antibiotics, the slowing down of antibiotic development, the increasingly popular trend of using natural or organic ingredients (check out our article ‘What’s up with natural ingredients?’), perhaps most importantly, the common misconception that an ingredient’s benefit in medical scenarios always translate into benefit in non-medical scenarios. While these are all important points, let’s focus on that last point a bit more. Take a look at antibiotic soaps. They were first introduced with the idea that they can kill the bacteria on your skin to prevent infection or something like that. While it is true that they will likely kill your skin flora, this does not translate into lower rates of infection or any health benefit at all. Looking back, it was kind of silly because it created problems like increasing antibiotic resistance and environmental damage. In fact, it soon fell out of favor and certain antibiotics were banned from soaps by the FDA. Of course, using honey in cosmetics probably doesn’t share the same health or environmental impacts as excessive antibiotic use, but its inclusion into cosmetic products is based on the same fallacious principle as antibiotics in soaps: that because it has positive effects in medical scenarios, those benefits must also carry to daily life.  

One other reason why manuka honey has seen increasing usage in cosmetics is probably because it has ‘all the right features’. It is a naturally existing product, an antioxidant, an antibiotic, and a wound healing agent. So to the uninformed consumer, it seems to be a product that’s not conceived by big pharma, something that shares the same beneficial effects as topical vitamin E (we will discuss this controversial ingredient at a later date), something that can kill unwanted bacteria on your skin, and something that can heal your acne scars or other skin wounds. Unfortunately, even if it did have all these amazing properties, the effects are probably too small to make a significant difference to most people’s skin. Furthermore, don’t mistaken wound healing for scar prevention, as this is how cosmeceuticals are sometimes marketed. Even if an agent can speed up the rate of wound healing, scars that are meant to be formed will still form.

Let’s sum it up!

Let’s be honest, manuka honey has some early scientific evidence for wound healing and antimicrobial properties, but if you are basing your choice of cosmetics for those reasons alone, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. If you need antibiotics because you think you have an infection or if your wound is bad enough that you need more than normal dressings for it to heal, then you should probably seek medical advice from a healthcare professional. We are not trying to discourage you from buying manuka honey based cosmetic products. Instead, as always, we just want consumers to be aware of what’s fact and what’s fiction.

That’s all for today folks!


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